Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
The Smithsonian is the world’s largest research and museum complex, with 19 museums and galleries, the National Zoological Park, and various research stations. More than 137 million objects detailing America’s story are housed here, so you’d better prepare for a long week of walking. There’s so much to see that, if you spent one minute day and night looking at each object on exhibit, in ten years you’d see only ten percent of the whole. Therefore, it’s wise to head out with a plan. Focus on only one or two exhibits at two or three different museums.
Le Louvre, Paris, France
The Louvre was a medieval fortress and the palace of the kings of France before becoming a museum two centuries ago. The addition of I. M. Pei’s pyramid shocked many when it was unveiled in 1989 as the new main entrance, yet it somehow works, integrating the palace’s disparate elements. The museum’s collections, which range from antiquity to the first half of the 19th century, are among the most important in the world. A good place to start is the Sully Wing, at the foundations of Philippe-Auguste’s medieval keep—it’s in the heart of the Louvre, kids love it, and it leads straight to the Egyptian rooms.
The Acropolis Museum, Athens, Greece
The stunning ground floor gallery houses finds from the slopes of the Acropolis. Its amazing transparent glass floor provides a walk over history, with a view of the archaeological excavation, while sloping upward to the Acropolis with sanctuaries of the Athenians from each historic period nearby. Smaller settlements have been excavated, yielding glimpses of Athenian life. For the first time, the exhibits in the Archaic Gallery allow visitors to take in all sides of the objects, which are displayed in open spaces characterized by changing natural light.
State Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Russia
Russia may be isolated from the artistic centers of Paris, Rome, and London, but the Hermitage has managed to acquire a spectacular collection of world art—more than three million items—spanning the years from the Stone Age to the early 20th century. The museum occupies six buildings along the Neva River, the leading structure being the confection-like Winter Palace. This gloriously baroque, blue-and-white structure was finished in 1764 and over the next several centuries was the main residence of the czars. Catherine the Great founded the museum that same year when she purchased 255 paintings from Berlin. The museum’s focal point is Western European art—120 rooms in four buildings ranging from the Middle Ages to the present day. Rembrandt, Rubens, Tiepolo, Titian, da Vinci, Picasso, Gauguin, Cézanne, van Gogh, and Goya are all represented here. For in-depth tours, contact Glories of the Hermitage.
The British Museum, London, England
Britain’s largest museum looks after the national collection of archaeology and ethnography—more than eight million objects ranging from prehistoric bones to chunks of Athens’ Parthenon, from whole Assyrian palace rooms to exquisite gold jewels.
The Prado, Madrid, Spain
The Spanish royal family is responsible for the Prado’s bounty of classical masterpieces. Over centuries, kings and queens collected and commissioned art with passion and good taste. In addition to stars of Spanish painting such as Velázquez, Goya, Ribera, and Zurbarán, the Prado has big collections of Italian (including Titian and Raphael) and Flemish artists. Fernando VII opened the collection to the public in 1819, in the same neoclassic building it’s housed in today, designed by Juan de Villanueva.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, New York
The Metropolitan Museum of Art is the largest museum in the Western Hemisphere. Its collection of more than two million items is not only broad—covering the entire world, from antiquity to the present—but deep, with holdings so large in a number of areas that some might be considered museums unto themselves. Its European paintings are stunning: works by Botticelli, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Degas, Rodin, and other luminaries. The Egyptian Collection showcases the tomb of Perneb (circa 2440 B.C.) and the exquisite Temple of Dendur (circa 23-10 B.C.). The American Wing contains American arts and crafts, including a room from a Frank Lloyd Wright Prairie House. And the list goes on and on.
The Vatican Museums, Vatican City, Italy
Twenty-two separate collections comprise the Musei Vaticani, each one more spectacular than the next. The most famous are probably the Museo Pio-Clementino, with its splendid classical sculpture; the Raphael Rooms, entire rooms painted by Raphael; the Pinacoteca (picture gallery), which contains the cream of the Vatican’s collection of medieval and Renaissance paintings; and, of course, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. But there is also the ancient Egyptian exhibits of the Museo Gregoriano Egizio, as well as the Etruscan offerings of the Museo Gregoriano Etrusco. And that’s just a start.
The Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy
“Great” is an overworked adjective in Italy, where so many of the country’s monuments and works of art command the highest praise. In the case of the Galleria degli Uffizi, it barely does justice to a gallery that holds the world’s finest collection of Renaissance paintings. All the famous names of Italian art are here—not only the Renaissance masters, but also painters from the early medieval, baroque, and Mannerist heydays.
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, the Netherlands
About 900,000 objects fill the Rijksmuseum, the largest collection of art and history in the Netherlands. It is most famous for its paintings by 17th-century Dutch masters, including Ruysdael, Frans Hals, Johannes Vermeer, and Rembrandt van Rijn. Established in 1800 to exhibit the collections of the Dutch stadtholders, the Rijksmuseum also displays art from the Middle Ages. The main building is closed for renovation until 2013; collection highlights are displayed in the Philips Wing and at Rijksmuseum Schiphol.